Photo: John Loomis
The Long Haul
An insider's take on the secret behind the Harlem Children's Zone's determined success.
It's not the first question visitors ask, but you can see it in the darting eyes as folks walk through the halls teeming with students and staff. "What's the secret?" they want to know. "How can Harlem Children's Zone (HZC) get thousands of poor children to succeed academically where hundreds of programs and billions of dollars have failed?"
Visitors want to see "the curriculum," the lesson plans, the data. They wonder if anyone can replicate HCZ's work without our charismatic CEO Geoffrey Canada, Ed.M.'75. And, of course, a few folks are just plain suspicious and wait with knife and fork in hand for any morsel of bad news to satisfy their insatiable cynicism.
Well, there is a secret (spoiler alert): it's hard work over the long haul.
The Harlem Children's Zone Project targets a 97-blockarea of Central Harlem with an interlocking network of education, social service, and community-building programs for children, from birth through college, and the adults around them. As the communications director of the agency for the past eight years, my favorite description of the agency is from a friend: "They do everything but come and wake you up in the morning." The truth is, I learned, that the staff would to that, too, if that's what was necessary.
At HCZ we talk about a "pipeline" of services, but it is actually two parallel pipelines: One for children who go to our K–12 charter schools; the other for children who live in the neighborhood and go to traditional public schools. Both start with our early education programs. We have outreach workers scouring the neighborhood, looking for pregnant women and parents of young children for The Baby College, a nine-week series of workshops that teach a range of parenting skills. It's a great program, but the outreach workers use all sorts of enticements — free childcare, a weekly raffle, free diapers — to get parents in because we want all of them, the good and particularly the bad. Then we have our hooks in them — and them in our database — hopefully for the next 20 years or so.
Whatever It Takes is the title of Paul Tough's excellent account of the organization's work, and it has become the informal motto of the staff, who say it with a smile and a roll of the eyes as they dive into the latest crisis. And the crises come with stunning regularity since we work with more than 11,000 children, many of whom face daily drama that would make grand opera seem drab by comparison.
"We're trying to create a community where children are our permanent interest," says Canada, "and a child who has struggled is connected to a series of adults who stay with the child over long periods of time. This idea that we're investing in children as a team over time is central to our work."
At HCZ, we just shake our heads when people criticize Head Start, for example, by saying it doesn't make a difference for children ultimately. What do people expect when ontrack four-year-olds are tossed into substandard schools for the rest of their academic career, and with a battery of other disadvantages, including the ever-present threat of violence?
Although HCZ has been fortunate to receive glowing press attention, the coverage has sometimes highlighted our charter schools and obscured our work with children in traditional public schools. In fact, the original business plan of the HCZ Project did not include charter schools. When the opportunity arose, Canada, who had watched public schools fail for decades, jumped at the opportunity to deliver a great school to large numbers of poor children. The result was Promise Academy I, which opened in 2004, and Promise Academy II, which opened in 2005.
"We make the same guarantee to children in traditional public schools," he says. "If you stick with us, you will get into and through college."
Today, HCZ works with all seven of the traditional public elementary schools in the Zone, serving more than 2,400 students. We also work with more than 900 middle school students who don't attend our charter school and 1,080 Harlem high schoolers. More than 700 students from these afterschool programs are now in college.
While some have painted Canada with a broad brush as "anti-union," he is simply opposed to anyone and anything that does not put children first. That commitment defines him in the fields of politics and policy, but also makes him a relentless, no-excuses manager.
"If my mother worked here and she messed up," Canada once told a staffer, "I'd fire her."
This year marks a milestone for the Harlem Children's Zone Promise Academy I charter school: It graduates its first class of high-school seniors — and all of them will be going to college in the fall.
Recently I sat down with Principal Marquitta Speller in her office, which typically clatters with the daily drama and comedy of teenagers, and we looked through a list of her seniors. I asked what would have happened if these kids had not won the school admission lottery six years ago.
"We have 62 seniors," she says, ruefully shaking her head. "You would have maybe five that on their own would say, 'OK, I'm doing this, I'm going to college.'
"I don't have a crystal ball," she continues, "but if they didn't have these services, they would not have made it. A few would have become pregnant. …Some boys would have been locked up.
The school runs a longer school day and year, but that is just the beginning of the difference from a traditional school. There is an onsite health center that offers students free medical, dental, and mental-health services. There is a social work team, a comprehensive afterschool program, freshly made healthy breakfasts and lunches, a range of incentives to reward good efforts. But what it took to get some of this first graduating cohort to cap and gown illustrates why HCZ's "wraparound" services, applied over the long term, were essential.
There's Tameka, a special education student who was shot in the face while walking home through a playground in seventh grade. She and other students received counseling after the shooting, and staff made sure she stayed in school to get the academic help she needed despite the stigma of being left back due to the weeks she missed. As a senior, Speller says, "she jumped 320 points on her SAT because she had developed this determination."
When Tyler arrived at the Promise Academy in sixth grade, he was a pudgy class clown who was at the bottom academically of a cohort that was 75 percent below grade level in English and 60 percent below grade level in math. While the staff immediately knew Tyler as a student who was more dedicated to getting attention for bad behavior than applying himself, they soon learned the reason: his "home life," which in his case was a euphemism. His mother vacillated about keeping him in her home and so he bounced among family members, including his dad, who was struggling with drug addiction.
Tyler had an epiphany during an extended stay with family outside New York City. He said that seeing his family that summer — mired in a desolate world of crime, drugs, and unemployment — made him realize "the type of life that I want isn't one spent in the basement of my mother's house with kids I can't support and an education that would leave me unqualified to even be a manager at McDonald's."
The lightbulb that went on was powered by the repeated messages he got from the staff, particularly one teacher who became a father figure to him. Tyler said the teacher joked with him but made clear there was also a time to buckle down and work toward his dreams.
He returned an earnest, hard-working student, looking to change the people and the world around him. As he tries to make up for lost time, he says, "I wish we had more time here. I wish there were a 13th grade."
The lightbulb moment came even later for Crystal, another senior whose mom has struggled with crack addiction since before Crystal was born.
Crystal arrived at the school behind academically, struggled with low self-esteem and hopelessness, and had a penchant for being involved in every "beef " that erupted among her classmates. But staff stayed with her through every crisis.
A turning point, Speller says, was when Crystal was selected for a trip to Boston in 11th grade.
"She was fantastic," Speller says. "That may have been one of the first times she heard something positive associated with her name." On the trip, she visited a college campus for the first time. Suddenly, all the admonitions to get on track coalesced in her mind, and she realized there was an achievable and worthy goal within her reach.
"She's going to struggle in college. I already know it," Speller says. "In all honesty, she's a student who will be in my life for the rest of my life." Fortunately for Crystal, HCZ has a College Success Office (CSO), which continues our support of students when they go to college. The CSO became part of the pipeline when staff realized that our "successes" were sometimes dropping out in college; it helps students with everything from time management to getting internships.
Speller compares her time in Harlem with her prior school experience in Brooklyn. "Same kids, same issues," she says. "But different resources make a huge difference, including staff with a genuine interest and love and passion for the kids and community. …If I had this in Bedford-Stuyvesant, I'd have the same results."
People from outside the community may think that the only difference between a middle-class child and a poor one is money, but life in a devastated community is a minefield of potential setbacks for children. There is a toxic "gangsta wannabe" street — and popular — culture that encourages behavior that is ultimately self-destructive. There are ill-prepared schools, the threat of violence, inadequate health care, lack of resources for out-of-school time. Sometimes there are parents who are the very opposite of nurturing. "I think we are gathering a body of evidence that suggests the impact of really negative parenting is extremely damaging to a child's learning capacity, emotional stability, and cognitive development," says Canada. But, he adds, HCZ has the responsibility to educate children, no matter what kind of parents they have.
One of the saddest examples is Javier, currently a seventh grader at Promise Academy II.
Javier started at the school in first grade and was already "really way below" grade level, according to Principal Kathleen Fernald, but each year seemed to reveal a new problem.
At the end of third grade, because his mother could not adequately care for him, he was placed with foster families around the city. But the school officials fought to have him placed with his mother again so that he would have the consistency of the Promise Academy.
"He needed us desperately," Fernald says.
One teacher took his uniforms home and washed them since his mother was not doing so. At one point, when asked about his weight loss, he said he was often walking to school because no one was waking him up in time to get the bus. At another point, a fire in his building forced his family into a homeless shelter.
Despite it all, Javier began to slowly make progress academically and began to improve his social skills. In sixth grade, he told Fernald that he had just seen his father for the first time in years; He had been released from prison. "He's a survivor," Fernald says.
Last August, Fernald recalls, she was looking at the grades for the statewide math exams that had just come in and she stopped when she saw Javier's. Though it was late at night, she called Javier's teacher, tears welling in her eyes, to give him the news: Javier had earned a 4, designating him "highly proficient."
"This child will still struggle," Fernald says, getting teary again. "But if he continues to perform at this level, college will be a reality. …The whole cycle of poverty for this family will change."
HCZ's work with traditional public schools does not have the same number of hours each day as our work with our charter school kids, but the dedication is the same. Last year, more than 95 percent of the seniors in HCZ's four high-school afterschool programs were accepted into college, helped with everything from SAT preparation courses to tutoring to counseling.
We track retention rates to make sure that children move from program to program through college. We have a database with basic information on every participant. And our academic case management system assigns a staffer to every HCZ student from fifth grade up to not just solve problems but prevent them; to make sure they get what they need, whether it's grief counseling, chess lessons, or a weight-loss regimen — a Zone defense, so to speak.
Denise enrolled in a karate class at an HCZ middle-school program as an overweight fifth-grader who was having trouble at her school socially. "I was an insecure child," recalls Denise, who is now 17, chatty, and obviously very comfortable in her own skin. "I couldn't relate to anyone."
She lost 20 pounds, but, more importantly, learned she had allies to push her to improve academically, socially, and to widen her world view.
Gradually, she says, "I realized that there's not that much difference between me and the next person, and we just have to help each other out."
Matriculating to the Zone's TRUCE Arts program for high school students, Denise learned how to express herself in several creative disciplines. "I see things differently," she says. "After taking photography here, I see things…" She holds up a small pad of paper and turns it slowly in front of her. "It's all about light. So I see light in everything. When students don't have that experience, they don't see light in everything."
The longterm relationship and trust that Denise had developed with HCZ staff over the years was key when her family split due, in part, to domestic violence.
"They encouraged me to make a change, not just dwell on it," she says, noting she went on to make an award-winning public-service announcement on domestic violence.
Although the Harlem Children's Zone Project is too new to have produced adults who have come through the pipeline, there are young people who grew up within the organization, stretching back to the time it was called Rheedlen.
James Washington, who is now 30, has spent 15 years in the agency. Although he was a "respectful" boy, he was an indifferent student and drifted into an ad-hoc apprenticeship in the neighborhood drug trade.
A neighbor told Washington about a job at the agency. In those days, young go-fers were taken under the wing of the older staff around them. They were employees, but they also were youths who needed to be saved from the street. They were regularly quizzed on school, their plans for life, and were given the loving kick in the metaphorical butt when necessary.
At one point, Washington recalls, he decided to take a year off before going to college. When Canada found out, he delayed a Board of Trustees meeting just to talk to the teen.
"He let me have it," Washington says. He recalls saying to himself later: "They really care about what I do with my future. Maybe I need to start caring about my future."
Washington went on to college and worked as a teacher's assistant through HCZ. Seeing how the children took to him, Washington says, "I found the thing that I wanted to get up in the morning and do every day." When he didn't have a computer, a program director let him use hers after hours. When he had a crisis, he had HCZ elders with whom he could talk.
Now an assistant director, Washington has become a mentor to several tough cases himself.
"All I needed was someone extra to care about me," Washington says. "[Kids are] reaching out to folks to put effort into them — and they may be making it more difficult by being disrespectful or doing all types of crazy things — but they just want someone to make the effort.
"At the end of the day, it's just about really hard work and making sure every child gets the attention they need," Washington continues. "I tell my staff all the time: 'The most dangerous thing in the world is a bored child.'"
"To be very successful in this work you have to be on a mission, and part of that mission is that you have to be deeply concerned and care for young people," Canada says. "But the care can't be the evaluative tool that you use to determine whether or not your strategy is successful.
"We are determined to have hard evidence that this care and this love are being translated into significant growth in measurable ways in our children," Canada says.
As the agency grew, he says, it had to be "fierce in the pursuit of the truth," which sometimes meant telling staff a shiny new strategy was actually not working. Today, HCZ has a six-person evaluation department that creates, monitors, and evaluates criteria for each program.
"The data feedback loop became a monster," Canada said recently at a meeting of HCZ's senior managers. He acknowledged that trying to put order into the chaos of poor children's lives is difficult at best. But acknowledging the difficulties does not mean accepting them. "The thing about a wake-up call," he said, "is you have to wake up."
The unforgiving evaluations, the intolerance for excuses, the talk of saving lives: These are the ever-present reminders that Canada and the staff are a band of rebels fighting against the corrosive culture of poverty laying siege to the families just outside our four walls. It's as if Canada has lashed together anyone and anything in the neighborhood willing to fight the good fight, pulled in resources from outside to stop the gaps, then began ushering children in to the safety within and the hopes of a brighter future.
Canada reminds his managers that the agency, as it breaks new ground in the field, will always struggle with breakdowns.
"We have to fix the bike while riding it," he jokes, then adds with a laugh that doesn't diminish the timbre of determination in his voice, "We'll get there on a wobbly bike."
— Marty Lipp has been the communications director at HCZ for eight years. He has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Star-Ledger, and the Huffington Post.
— Photography by John Loomis